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First grader at board reading 3-letter words for teacher

Basics: Phonics and Decoding

Phonics instruction teaches the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language. To read, children need to understand the alphabetic principle — the idea that letters represent the sounds of spoken language. Decoding is when we use letter-sound relationships to translate a printed word into speech. 

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The goal of phonics instruction is to help children learn the alphabetic principle — the idea that letters represent the sounds of spoken language — and that there is an organized, logical, and predictable relationship between written letters and spoken sounds. Decoding is when we use letter-sound relationships to translate a printed word into speech. It’s sometimes called “sounding out” a printed word.  

Learning that there are predictable relationships between sounds and letters allows children to apply these relationships to both familiar and unfamiliar words, and to begin to read with fluency.

Children are taught, for example, that the letter ‘n’ represents the sound /n/, and that it is the first letter in words such as nose, nice and new. When children understand sound–letter correspondence, they can sound out and read (decode) new words.

Programs of phonics instruction should be:

  • Systematic: the letter-sound relationship is taught in an organized and logical sequence
  • Explicit: the instruction provides teachers with precise directions for teaching letter-sound relationships

Effective phonics programs provide:

  • Frequent opportunities for children to apply what they are learning about letters and sounds to the reading of words, sentences, and stories

Systematic and explicit phonics instruction:

  • Significantly improves children’s word recognition, spelling, and reading comprehension
  • Is most effective when it begins in kindergarten or first grade, but should be used as part of a comprehensive reading program with students at risk for reading disabilities or who have been identified as having a reading disability like dyslexia.

Watch phonics instruction in action

Reading expert Linda Farrell works with Calista, an early stage first grade reader, on short vowel sounds, blending and manipulating sounds, reading whole words, and fluency. From our Looking at Reading Interventions series.

More on phonics

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Browse our phonics and decoding resource library

Learn more about effective phonics instruction and building decoding skills through our articles, tips for parents, video, FAQs, and research briefs. Visit our Phonics and Decoding section